801 – Live

One of the 1970’s last great psychedelic albums

By the mid 1970’s, the term “supergroup” had become as clichéd as rock and roll itself. Usually made up of leftover musicians from popular and not so popular acts who had either imploded under the weight of commercial success (or lack thereof), or who felt that they just needed a change of scenery. One of the main problems with supergroups of course is that they typically came with super egos, which meant that most of them were relatively short lived (sometimes not a bad thing).

801 was formed in 1976 by guitarist Phil Manzanera (ex Roxy Music), with Brian Eno (also ex-Roxy Music) and several other musicians of lesser known fame. Bill MacCormick had played bass with Manzanera in a previous outfit, known as Quiet Sun, while Francis Monkman (piano and clavinet on this album), Simon Phillips (drums) and Lloyd Watson (slide-guitar) are also highly acclaimed musicians in their own right.

This line-up of the band performed only three shows, at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, the final of which, fortunately, was professionally recorded and released as 801 Live, and is arguably one of the last great psychedelic albums of the 70’s.

Side one launches off with the atmospheric “Lagrima,” a Manzanera composition which can be found on his excellent Diamond Head album. It segues into a spacey interpretation of The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” but you’d never guess, that is until Eno sings the first line. That’s how radical this version is. The original was purely a studio creation, so hats off to anyone who can recreate it live. And here they succeed with plenty of ideas to spare.

“East of Asteroid” is an energetic exercise in prog-rock, where Phillips certainly earns his keep on the skins, likewise the rest of the group, especially Manzanera, who plays like a stallion on heat.

“Rongwrong” is a song originally recorded by Quiet Sun, from Manzanera’s pre-Roxy Music days, and it’s jolly nice, in a sort of Syd Barrett if he only had-his-head-together kind of way. In other words, it’s as English as Wind in the Willows, or the Magic Far Away Tree.

It’s fascinating to hear Eno’s “Sombre Reptiles,” from Another Green World, replicated on stage. It’s an odd creature to say the least, but it sure as hell beats disco.

“Baby’s On Fire,” is all vivacious pop nonsense, with Eno singing like some genius who’s been locked away in the madhouse for too long. The whole thing is as crazy as a loon, yet in the most enjoyable and memorable way.

And now we have the exquisite high-ceilinged “Diamond Head,” Manzanera unleashes his inner Pink Floyd, with the occasional nod to Hendrix thrown in for good measure. One of the best songs David Gilmour never wrote.

Also off Diamond Head is “Miss Shapiro,” which represents yet another excursion into the outer limits of eccentric pop-rock. And when you least expect it, the band shifts seamlessly into The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” a solid tribute to another great English band.

Last track “Third Uncle” is all prog-punk, a bit like the Sex Pistols meets Emerson, Lake & Palmer; not that such a coming together of minds would have ever been possible (I can just see Keith Emerson telling Sid Vicious to stop gobbing at the audience).

The band 801 must surely go down in the record books as one of the shortest lived ‘supergroups’ of all time (three weeks’ rehearsal, three shows, one album, respectively). And with little if any radio coverage, and certainly no follow-up/promotional tour, little wonder then it never made much of a dent on the mainstream (shit, even I hadn’t heard of it until around a decade ago).

In 1999 the album was reissued with two bonus tracks from the same show, followed in 2009 by a ‘Collectors Edition,’  featuring an extra disc of a band rehearsal from the previous month, but still no additional music from the all important performance itself. Suffice it to say, any fan of Eno (and Manzanera) will find much to enjoy here.

For any avid enthusiast of vintage progressive jazz-rock with a strong twist of psychedelia, 801 Live is essential listening.